How Dogs Learn
Dogs learn by the same principles we do: They do what works for them and they stop doing what isn’t working for them. Our objective is to divine how to increase desirable behaviors and decrease unwelcome behaviors in ways that are meaningful to our dogs.
Learning by Association: Harnessing the Power of Pavlov
Pavlov first described the phenomenon of associative learning, or classical conditioning. He discovered that, by pairing a stimulus that elicited no emotion with a stimulus that elicited an emotional response, he could imbue the neutral stimulus with the emotional response (either positive or negative). This emotional response is involuntary. In Pavlov’s example, pairing a bell with food caused the dogs to salivate when they heard the bell in happy anticipation of food. We ourselves are creatures of this type of learning in just about every aspect of our lives. Doesn’t the Mister Softie jingle bring a smile to your face whenever you hear it?! And with your dog, how about the happy jig he does whenever you pick up his leash? Each is an example of associative learning.
We will rely on the power of Pavlov’s discovery over and over again. When training dogs, and especially when treating adult dogs who have issues such as fear, associative learning will be a fundamental technique.
Pavlov Applied: Desensitization/Counter-Conditioning (DS/CC)
Desensitizing (DS) a dog to an object of fear or discomfort means reframing this object in such a way that it no longer elicits fear/discomfort. By reducing the intensity of a stimulus to a level that the dog can handle without reacting, you thereby desensitize her to that stimulus. This might mean reducing its size, increasing its distance, or decreasing its intensity.
Counter-conditioning (CC) means changing the dog’s emotional response to the object that has elicited fear/discomfort. Instead, the dog will greet it with happy anticipation. This is done by pairing the stimulus with something that the dog finds rewarding, like a tasty treat.
Dealing with issues involving a negative emotional response has an important additional factor called threshold. If your dog is experiencing the fear/discomfort caused by the stimulus, she is above her fear threshold, while, below the threshold, she is nonreactive and composed. You must determine, when designing your dog’s treatment, where her threshold is and then stay below it. Below threshold, your dog is capable of taking in the new experiences. Above threshold, your dog is in a state of fear and not capable of experiencing the learning needed to discover that the scary thing is really not so scary.
DS and CC together are a powerful one-two punch. DS/CC is a technique that is used over and over again.
DS/CC example: Paw Handling
In the case of handling sensitivity, such as paw sensitivity, start by handling in a part of your dog’s body that does not upset him, such as his shoulder. With each touch of that body part, feed him a little scrumptious treat. If being touched on the shoulder means a little piece of chicken, then you can see that your pup will begin to enjoy being touched on the shoulder because it has come to anticipate pleasurable things. Gradually move down his leg, getting closer and closer to his paws. If at any point he looks uncomfortable or concerned, step back a bit. He’s not ready yet.
On Wednesday, there will be a follow-up article on Animal learning (Part II) – consequential learning. So give a peek back!
For more on classical conditioning and DS/CC, see my article Harnessing the Power of Pavlov.